WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Friday it will decide whether states that issue specialty license plates must include potentially controversial ones with Confederate battle flags or abortion-related messages.

At issue is whether the First Amendment’s protection for the freedom of speech puts limits on the range and type of messages displayed on these state-issued plates.

Judges have been divided over whether these license plates are seen as carrying the state’s message or instead expressing the private views of the motorist.

Most states offer specialty plates to motorists, and officials have adopted different approaches toward controversial topics such as abortion or the Confederacy.

Some states steer clear of controversy entirely. Others, such as North Carolina, authorized “Choose Life” plates, but refused requests for a plate with a “pro-choice” message.

In recent months, two U.S. appeals courts in the South have ruled that license plates express the “private speech” of a motorist, and therefore, cannot be strictly regulated by the states.

Texas was told it must issue a license plate honoring the “Sons of Confederate Veterans,” even though state officials feared such an official plate would be seen by many as hateful and demeaning.

And North Carolina was told that if it issued “Choose Life” plates, it must also offer a contrary message such as “Respect Choice.”

The Supreme Court said it agreed to hear an appeal from Texas state lawyers in the case of Walker vs. Texas Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans.

An official license plate is “government speech,” the state’s lawyers argued, and thereby shielded from free-speech attacks.

The state should not be “forced to convey a license-plate holder’s message by etching onto a plate marked with the state’s name,” they said.

If motorists can claim such a free-speech right, the state could find itself forced to issue plates for the Ku Klux Klan or other hate groups, the lawyers said.